Officials see promise in a South Carolina prison unit where ‘restorative justice’ has boosted safety

TURBEVILLE, S.C. (AP) — A South Carolina prison unit where older men with lengthier sentences mentor young adults preparing to reenter society is giving officials hope that a different approach to living conditions will reduce violence behind bars.

The special housing facility known as a Community Opportunity Restoration Enhancement (C.O.R.E.) unit emphasizes an unorthodox method of prisoner reform called “restorative justice” that prioritizes open communication and self-correction through group engagement and one-on-one meetings.

That atmosphere resulted in fewer violent incidents, according to a study of the units inside two state detention centers by the Vera Institute of Justice. Even more, participants who inhabit the unit that features walls covered in colorful murals and natural light commended the new initiative for allowing greater freedom in personalizing their spaces and developing trusting relationships alongside correctional officers.

“These guys need to be able to let loose and express themselves and their emotions,” said Matt, a mentor who cuts hair at a wing that includes two seats and a barber pole. “It gives them the opportunity to be who they really are, instead of this tough guy mentality that you have to put on when you’re in prison.”

Matt is one of five mentors currently living alongside 30 mentees inside one such special housing unit at Turbeville Correctional Institution, a medium-security state prison located in central South Carolina. The Associated Press agreed to publish only his first name under a South Carolina Department of Corrections policy seeking to shield victims.

The unit looks different from most. Participants wearing blue polo shirts and khakis can spend as many as 15 hours daily outside their cells. Personal rooms receive sunlight and can be decorated with photographs.

Bright artwork completed by participants lines the floors and walls. Painted logos for professional and collegiate athletic teams appear outside many doors. Murals depict influential figures and highlight phrases like “EMPOWER BLACK MEN.”

The men access utilities not typically shared by prisoners. Laundry machines mean clothes are washed more frequently. A mini fridge provides the opportunity to store water and brings what one mentor described as “hope for freedom.” A kitchen facilitates sharing food in a space credited for giving dignity and curbing theft.

The abnormalities also extend to discipline. Lower-level offenses like disorderly conduct and contraband possession might be met with writing assignments related to the wrongdoing, public apologies to harmed individuals or additional chores without pay.

Research indicates people in such settings are less likely to engage in violence. During the initiative’s first year, Vera’s study reported six violent convictions within a group of 100 participants randomly assigned to the unit, compared to 15 among 100 applicants randomly left in the general prison population.

When applying statistical analysis, the study estimated a 73% decrease in the odds of violent convictions inside the special units.

Overall misconduct charges were comparable between the treatment and control groups. Selma Djokovic, the associate director of research at Vera, suggested incidents inside the unit are not reaching levels “where people have to resort to violence.”

“People are still getting in trouble because people are people. Young adults are young adults. But violence is down,” Djokovic said at a panel last month.

The initiative is a step in the right direction, said Madalyn Wasilczuk, a University of South Carolina law professor who has researched detention center deaths.

Wasilczuk, who was not involved with the study, said suicide is among other forms of violence that also need addressing. State and federal prisons in South Carolina had the sixth highest suicide rate from 2015-2019, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“The conditions of our prisons help produce violence,” she told The Associated Press. “It’s not a surprise to me that treating people more humanely and better would reduce violence.”

U.S. Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General Amy Solomon told panel members that the “restorative justice” model is replicable. Five units existed across Connecticut, South Carolina and Massachusetts at the time of the study. Others can now be found in Colorado and North Dakota.

Solomon told AP that expansion is partially a matter of “political will” and said grants exist to help correctional institutions “test the waters.” One funds technical assistance and staff to assist with implementing the initiative. Another backs research on the relationship between the climates and interactions inside prisons.

“You are showing everyone around the country what’s possible in this prison, and in prisons and jails and other facilities around the country,” Solomon told the panel last month.

But officials acknowledged barriers to expansion. Djokovic said many personnel from Vera are needed to facilitate the effort and prisons must also alter staffing structures.

Khalil, a 52-year-old man who recently joined the initiative 33 years into a life sentence, said restorative justice would be best spread throughout prisons because it “brings out the potential in people.” But he found that objective “unrealistic” now given the number of necessary trainings.

For Khalil, prison had been a place with people “hopeless” and “on edge.” But he said these changes have furthered rehabilitation. As a mentor leading lessons around victim impact, Khalil guides mentees through processes of remorse and empathy.

“I asked God to forgive me for what I did. But that has nothing to do with the impact on another human being and the lives I’ve hurt,” Khalil said. “I teach the youth that we’re obligated to do something.”

The youth focus is key because the 18- to 25-year-old population historically has the highest levels of recidivism, said Nikeya M. Chavous, who oversees young offender parole and reentry services in South Carolina. She said the initiative seeks to instill coping and self-management skills they are often missing due to “egregious” trauma and lagging support.

Other findings could help reverse staffing shortage trends. Special unit employees reported less stress and professional growth at high levels that Solomon called “unheard of.” Officials said the initiative could improve retention by making the units a place where correctional officers want to work.

“As opposed to standing around and watching, they’ll be part of correcting,” South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling told AP. “The goal is for them to make sure people reenter society safely.”

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James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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